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#EP Debate: We need to put the reins on Big Tobacco

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As always, the devil is in the details. That was the overall conclusion of a public hearing on the illicit tobacco trade in Europe organized by MEP Cristian Silviu Bușoi in the European Parliament on January 29th.  Bușoi has emerged as one of the most vocal MEPs in the on-going fight to decouple the European decision making process from the influence of tobacco companies, placing himself squarely at odds with the more relaxed attitude of the European Commission. For while much headway has been made in reining in the tobacco industry, recent efforts to further clamp down on the illicit tobacco trade could be derailed by Big Tobacco.

 

More than 50 participants, such as EC officials and public health advocates, attended the meeting. One MEP, who was not present but distributed a statement at the meeting, was Michèle Rivasi (Member of the Green Group from France). A shot across the bow of the EC, the document strongly criticised the European Commission for failing to respect the demands of civil society to establish surveillance systems for the illicit trade in cigarettes that were strictly independent of tobacco producers.

These surveillance systems are currently riddled with loopholes, which could end up enabling the parallel trade in cigarettes that cheats EU members of billions in taxes. “We are talking about tax evasion in the order of €20 billion, that the EU could claw back in lost tax revenues if it were to successfully clamp down on this illegal trade,” said Dr BUŞOI.

Rivasi’s position hews closely to a wider discussion regarding the proper implementation of the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) Protocol on Illicit Trade. This document, which the EU has ratified, mandates the implementation of strict anti-money laundering mechanisms, stringent licensing and due diligence mechanisms, as well as the creation of a track and trace (T&T) system for cigarettes that is fully independent from Big Tobacco. Such a system would deal a deathblow to both the parallel and illicit trade.

However, the implementation of the FCTC Protocol has not been without controversy within the EU – prompting health advocates to argue that the Protocol is not compatible with the EU’s own Tobacco Products Directive, which allows a degree of influence for tobacco companies in the implementation of the T&T system.

In fact, as was pointed out in the debate, the International Tax Stamp Association (ITSA) has filed a case before the European Court of Justice, arguing that the EU derived regulation is in breach of the FCTC. ITSA’s position is that any T&T system should be placed under the exclusive control of the EC and should neither “performed by nor delegated to the tobacco industry”.

ITSA is not alone. Several other participants, such as Dr Francisco Rodrigues Lozano, the President of the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention (ENSP) and Anca Toma Friedlander, the Director of the Smoke Free Partnership (SFP), supported that position. Both organization have been highly vocal in the fight against the influence of tobacco manufacturers on the decision making process. The ENSP is committed to bringing smoking rates down to under 5%, while the SFP is working to promote tobacco control and to ensure the correct implementation of the FCTC as a way of remedying the weaknesses of the current EU system.

Luk Joossens, a leading anti-tobacco advocate, pointed to a list of recommendations approved by the SFP and the European Cancer Leagues regarding the technical aspects of the T&T system that would ensure compliance with the FCTC – but that have not been adopted by the EC. In his telling, the unique identifiers of the T&T system should be linked to security features and the data storage providers should not be associated with the tobacco industry. Allen Gallagher from the University of Bath Department for Health singled out Atos, a French company that has been appointed by the EC as unique data storage provider, as having ties to the tobacco industry that render it incompatible with the FCTC.

Leszek Bartlomiejczyk of the ENSP struck a similar tone. “We need to control the whole legal supply chain,” he said, “and this involves the competent authorities in controlling resources, the production, the physical movement and the trade in tobacco products.” He also emphasized the need for national databases for member states to have their own data control systems. “We must have comprehensive solutions by licensing all elements of the supply chain from the manufacturer to the retailer,” he concluded.

Dr Filip Borkowski, Deputy Head of Unit at the European Commission’s Directorate-general for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE), opened his statement by rebuffing some of the accusations and defending the EC’s system for cross-border health and tobacco control. He claimed that the EU system is in full compliance with the FCTC protocol. “We think our system is up to the job required by the terms of the Directive,” he told the Parliamentary Hearing.

Referring to the shortcomings of the T&T system identified by some participants - such as Mr Joossens’ comments on its incompatibility with the WHO Protocol - Mr Borkowski mentioned that the Tobacco Products Directive and all its provisions will be subject to a review in 2021. The SFP had written about this in 2017, in the wake of the Commission’s adoption of the act, which foresaw the modification of the EU system to close its loopholes and bring it in line with the FCTC protocol.

Concluding the debate, Bușoi said that he intends to push for a review of the Tobacco Products Directive in the next legislature after the May elections for the EP. It is for this reason that he initiated a consultation in 2018 and organized Tuesday’s debate. The objective would be to strengthen efforts to fight against the parallel trade of tobacco products in Europe and bring forward comprehensive new proposals to this effect.

 

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Backing #Vaping to beat #Cancer

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The upcoming European Union's Beating Cancer Plan is a historic chance to improve public health in Europe. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the EU. 1.3 million people die from cancer each year in the EU and 700,000 of those deaths are associated with smoking. Despite these terrifying numbers, approximately 140 million Europeans are still smoking. The European Union is right to tackle the disease with a holistic approach, writes Michael Landl (pictured).

A comprehensive approach needs to include prevention and harm reduction. While it is important that lawmakers do everything, they can to prevent people from starting smoking, it is equally important to support current smokers in their quest to quit. Including e-cigarettes (vaping) in the EU Beating Cancer Plan will help millions of European who are struggling to quit smoking and consequently prevent many deaths associated with cancer from smoking.

E-cigarettes contain liquid which is heated and turned into vapour. There is no tobacco nor tar in e-cigarettes and many of the toxins in cigarettes are not present in e-cigarettes. In 2015, Public Health England declared that vaping is 95% less harmful than smoking and began recommending that current smokers switch to electronic cigarettes. Countries like Canada and New Zealand followed their lead and have helped save millions of lives. In fact, these policies promoting vaping arguably achieved more in a short period of time than what lawmakers tried to accomplish for years: fewer people smoking cigarettes. 

We know that abstinence is not as effective as alternatives, such as vaping. According to a 2019 study from Queen Mary University London of 100 smokers trying to quit cold turkey, only three to five succeed - while according to the same study, vaping is even more effective for smoking cessation than nicotine-replacement therapy, like patches or gums.

Despite the weight of evidence, a number of governments have considered new restrictions on vaping, rather than make it more accessible. While often well intentioned most newly proposed regulations, such as flavour liquid bans or higher taxes, would disproportionately harm smokers who are trying to quit. This runs directly against the goal of beating cancer.

The EU Beating Cancer Plan is a massive opportunity to ramp up the fight against smoking. Lawmakers should include vaping in the plan as a harm reduction tool to prevent cancer. The European Union's institutions and governments should follow the lead of countries like the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand and encourage the use of vaping as a less harmful alternative for adult smokers.

If the European Union is serious about improving health, we must back vaping to beat cancer.

About the World Vapers' Alliance

The World Vapers’ Alliance (WVA) amplifies the voice of passionate vapers around the world and empowers them to make a difference for their communities. The alliance partners with 19 groups representing vapers worldwide and represents individual vapers. Michael Landl, the WVA’s director, is an experienced policy professional and a passionate vaper.

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Does #COVID-19 represent a mortal threat to the tobacco sector?

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The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has spelled bad news on the whole for smokers and the industry which supplies them. The most recent developments include the debunking of research that suggests smokers are supposedly less susceptible to the virus – accompanied by revelations that in fact the habit exacerbates the effects of the disease – as well as a public smoking ban in Galicia that has now spread across the whole of Spain.

With over one million smokers in the UK having reportedly kicked the habit since the onset of COVID-19, how great a threat does the current crisis represent to the industry which profits from their addiction? Public awareness of the dangers of smoking have never been higher, meaning the time is ripe for authorities in Europe and elsewhere to introduce measures aimed at curbing the deadly practice – but they must be wary of interference and prevarication from the ever-tenacious tobacco industry itself.

Big Tobacco under threat

At the outset of the coronavirus outbreak, smokers may have been initially cheered to hear the results of a study from China, where they were disproportionately underrepresented among sufferers of Covid-19. Subsequent research has not brought nearly such positive news; more than one peer-reviewed paper has found smokers are roughly twice as likely to experience coronavirus symptoms as non-smokers. This aligns with other studies, which found that smokers with the virus were twice as likely to be hospitalized and 1.8 times more likely to die than their non-smoking counterparts.

The addiction isn’t just damaging to those holding the cigarette, either. With bar patrons urged to keep their voices down and even theme park goers warned against screaming for fear of transmitting the virus orally, the huge clouds of smoke emitted by tobacco enthusiasts could be an ambient epidemic waiting to happen. Aware of the danger, South Africa took immediate action to ban tobacco sales in late March, although it has since revisited those restrictions. More recently, the Spanish region of Galicia and the Canary Islands archipelago both announced public smoking would be prohibited, with the rest of the country considering following suit.

The pandemic hasn’t just prompted a response from lawmakers – smokers are also reconsidering their relationship with tobacco in light of the dangers posed by the highly contagious and deadly respiratory disease. In the UK, over a million smokers have quit in the last six months, with 41% of those claiming fears of coronavirus were their primary motivation for doing so. Meanwhile, the University College London found that more people have given up smoking in the year up to June 2020 than in any other 12-month window since records began over a decade ago.

Underhanded tactics at play

Never one to take such setbacks lying down, Big Tobacco has resorted to its tried and tested tactical playbook. Among other machinations, that playbook involves obfuscating and influencing the science by funding favorable studies on the subject of coronavirus and smoking, delaying anti-tobacco regulations and claiming the industry comprises an “essential business” to avoid lockdown measures in places as diverse as Italy, Pakistan and Brazil.

At the same time, major tobacco firms have been accused of crisis-washing. Philip Morris International (PMI) donated a reported $1 million to the Romanian Red Cross and 50 ventilators to a Greek hospital, as well as an estimated €350,000 to a Ukrainian charity, with other big players reportedly having done the same. Critics claim these apparently altruistic contributions are nothing more than opportunistic PR stunts which capitalize on a global tragedy to paint Big Tobacco in a positive light – something which the industry itself vehemently rejects.

Regardless of the intent behind the donations, there are heavy suspicions that they may have contravened the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) protocol, which specifically prohibits governments or government-owned bodies from taking funds from the tobacco industry. Unsurprisingly, this kind of chicanery is nothing new for Big Tobacco, who have been ploughing a similar furrow for decades. Unfortunately, it’s one that continues to yield advantages for those behind the yoke, despite efforts to curb their influence.

Ineptitude and inefficiency in the EU

EU policymakers have, disappointingly, demonstrated themselves to be particularly susceptible to the tobacco industry’s malignant influence. As detailed by the OCCRP, the EU has effectively handed over large parts of its track and trace (T&T) system for illicit tobacco to firms with close ties to the industry. The system, which the FCTC has highlighted as an integral step in clamping down on a black market that costs the bloc over €10 billion per annum in lost public revenue, is intended to monitor a packet’s progress at each stage of the supply chain via a unique identifier, thus eliminating any opportunity for wrongdoing.

A central element of any successful T&T system, as defined by the Illicit Trade Protocol (ITP), is its complete independence from the industry itself. However, the OCCRP investigation has uncovered how key firms developing T&T software and handling the process have ties to the tobacco industry, including seven out of eight of the companies tasked with storing the all-important cigarette data. Meanwhile, one of the main companies monitoring hundreds of supply lines into the EU – Inexto – appears to be at least partially funded by Big Tobacco, while the very software it uses to carry out its obligations was purchased from PMI themselves for a rumored fee of just one Swiss franc.

The whole process is so riddled with inefficiencies that nine months after its implementation, insiders have said they have no idea how effective it has been in clamping down on the illegal trade, while one official from the UK’s trading standards office has called it “completely useless”. Nonetheless, EU officials have travelled the world touting the benefits of their system and several nations have already bought into the myth, with Inexto winning contracts from Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, and governments in Western Africa to date. The Pakistani contract, at least, has since been invalidated by court order.

A vaccine for industry influence

At a time when the Covid-19 crisis has thrown health concerns into sharp relief, governments and health groups should be taking a page out of the obesity debate book and generating momentum towards cutting smoking rates in their territories. While that momentum does seem to be gaining ground, it sadly does not appear to have escaped the pervasive and pernicious influence of the industry itself, which undermines the entire process.

Big Tobacco’s stratagems are widely documented and well understood – but this knowledge does not seem to be capable of preventing their success all the same. In addition to a vaccine for this deadly new coronavirus, it seems immunity against industry intervention should also be on the EU’s priority list.

Continue Reading

Cigarettes

Does #COVID-19 represent a mortal threat to the #tobacco sector?

Published

on

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has spelled bad news on the whole for smokers and the industry which supplies them. The most recent developments include the debunking of research that suggests smokers are supposedly less susceptible to the virus – accompanied by revelations that in fact the habit exacerbates the effects of the disease – as well as a public smoking ban in Galicia that has now spread across the whole of Spain.

With over one million smokers in the UK having reportedly kicked the habit since the onset of COVID-19, how great a threat does the current crisis represent to the industry which profits from their addiction? Public awareness of the dangers of smoking have never been higher, meaning the time is ripe for authorities in Europe and elsewhere to introduce measures aimed at curbing the deadly practice – but they must be wary of interference and prevarication from the ever-tenacious tobacco industry itself.

'Big Tobacco' under threat

At the outset of the coronavirus outbreak, smokers may have been initially cheered to hear the results of a study from China, where they were disproportionately underrepresented among sufferers of Covid-19. Subsequent research has not brought nearly such positive news; more than one peer-reviewed paper has found smokers are roughly twice as likely to experience coronavirus symptoms as non-smokers. This aligns with other studies, which found that smokers with the virus were twice as likely to be hospitalized and 1.8 times more likely to die than their non-smoking counterparts.

The addiction isn’t just damaging to those holding the cigarette, either. With bar patrons urged to keep their voices down and even theme park goers warned against screaming for fear of transmitting the virus orally, the huge clouds of smoke emitted by tobacco enthusiasts could be an ambient epidemic waiting to happen. Aware of the danger, South Africa took immediate action to ban tobacco sales in late March, although it has since revisited those restrictions. More recently, the Spanish region of Galicia and the Canary Islands archipelago both announced public smoking would be prohibited, with the rest of the country considering following suit.

The pandemic hasn’t just prompted a response from lawmakers – smokers are also reconsidering their relationship with tobacco in light of the dangers posed by the highly contagious and deadly respiratory disease. In the UK, over a million smokers have quit in the last six months, with 41% of those claiming fears of coronavirus were their primary motivation for doing so. Meanwhile, the University College London found that more people have given up smoking in the year up to June 2020 than in any other 12-month window since records began over a decade ago.

Underhanded tactics at play

Never one to take such setbacks lying down, Big Tobacco has resorted to its tried and tested tactical playbook. Among other machinations, that playbook involves obfuscating and influencing the science by funding favorable studies on the subject of coronavirus and smoking, delaying anti-tobacco regulations and claiming the industry comprises an “essential business” to avoid lockdown measures in places as diverse as Italy, Pakistan and Brazil.

At the same time, major tobacco firms have been accused of crisis-washing. Philip Morris International (PMI) donated a reported $1 million to the Romanian Red Cross and 50 ventilators to a Greek hospital, as well as an estimated €350,000 to a Ukrainian charity, with other big players reportedly having done the same. Critics claim these apparently altruistic contributions are nothing more than opportunistic PR stunts which capitalize on a global tragedy to paint Big Tobacco in a positive light – something which the industry itself vehemently rejects.

Regardless of the intent behind the donations, there are heavy suspicions that they may have contravened the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) protocol, which specifically prohibits governments or government-owned bodies from taking funds from the tobacco industry. Unsurprisingly, this kind of chicanery is nothing new for Big Tobacco, who have been ploughing a similar furrow for decades. Unfortunately, it’s one that continues to yield advantages for those behind the yoke, despite efforts to curb their influence.

Ineptitude and inefficiency in the EU

EU policymakers have, disappointingly, demonstrated themselves to be particularly susceptible to the tobacco industry’s malignant influence. As detailed by the OCCRP, the EU has effectively handed over large parts of its track and trace (T&T) system for illicit tobacco to firms with close ties to the industry. The system, which the FCTC has highlighted as an integral step in clamping down on a black market that costs the bloc more than €10 billion per annum in lost public revenue, is intended to monitor a packet’s progress at each stage of the supply chain via a unique identifier, thus eliminating any opportunity for wrongdoing.

A central element of any successful T&T system, as defined by the Illicit Trade Protocol (ITP), is its complete independence from the industry itself. However, the OCCRP investigation has uncovered how key firms developing T&T software and handling the process have ties to the tobacco industry, including seven out of eight of the companies tasked with storing the all-important cigarette data. Meanwhile, one of the main companies monitoring hundreds of supply lines into the EU – Inexto – appears to be at least partially funded by Big Tobacco, while the very software it uses to carry out its obligations was purchased from PMI themselves for a rumored fee of just one Swiss franc.

The whole process is so riddled with inefficiencies that nine months after its implementation, insiders have said they have no idea how effective it has been in clamping down on the illegal trade, while one official from the UK’s trading standards office has called it “completely useless”. Nonetheless, EU officials have travelled the world touting the benefits of their system and several nations have already bought into the myth, with Inexto winning contracts from Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, and governments in Western Africa to date. The Pakistani contract, at least, has since been invalidated by court order.

A vaccine for industry influence

At a time when the Covid-19 crisis has thrown health concerns into sharp relief, governments and health groups should be taking a page out of the obesity debate book and generating momentum towards cutting smoking rates in their territories. While that momentum does seem to be gaining ground, it sadly does not appear to have escaped the pervasive and pernicious influence of the industry itself, which undermines the entire process.

Big Tobacco’s stratagems are widely documented and well understood – but this knowledge does not seem to be capable of preventing their success all the same. In addition to a vaccine for this deadly new coronavirus, it seems immunity against industry intervention should also be on the EU’s priority list.

Continue Reading
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